By Jonathan Yardley
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
On a November afternoon in 1973 the Pittsburgh Steelers were decisively beating their arch rivals in the National Football League, the Oakland Raiders, when one of their players turned to Roy Blount Jr., a writer from Sports Illustrated who had followed the team all season and was watching from the sidelines, and shouted: "You picked the right team! Oh, a great bunch of guys! . . . We're all about three bricks shy of a load!" This last declaration struck Blount with such force that when, the following year, he published a book about his time with the Steelers, he called it "About Three Bricks Shy of a Load: A Highly Irregular Lowdown on the Year the Pittsburgh Steelers Were Super but Missed the Bowl."
The book became something of a classic, widely regarded as one of the best ever written about pro football, but it also went on to add still further proof of the eternal verity of what in moments of high conceit I think of as Yardley's Law. Simply stated, books with titles people can't get their mouths around almost never become bestsellers. How many copies of Blount's wonderful book never found their way into the hands of readers because those same readers were stymied in the bookstores? "Do you have a copy of, uh, 'More or Less Eight Sacks Short of a . . .' "
"Three Bricks" sold well enough for its original publisher, Little, Brown. Fully six years went by before the hardcover edition was followed by a Ballantine paperback, and then more than two decades passed before the University of Pittsburgh Press brought it out in an expanded, updated edition. During all this time the book landed occasionally on lists of the best sports books, yet it struggled to find a lasting market, and so far as I'm concerned it's all because of that mouthful of a title, for which there's a lovely word in Spanish, trabalenguas, or, literally, "work for the tongue."
For Blount, though, the book kicked off an exceptionally interesting and productive career. Then in his early 30s, he'd moved to Sports Illustrated from newspaper jobs in his native South, and not long after "Three Bricks" left the magazine for the freelance life. He's managed to keep at it ever since, with about 20 books (four as co-author) under his belt, innumerable magazine articles and speaking engagements, and a regular gig with National Public Radio. He usually is classified as a humorist, indeed is the editor of "Roy Blount's Book of Southern Humor" (1994), but he deals in wit more than belly laughs and has an appealing reflective side, especially as revealed in his fine memoir, "Be Sweet" (1998), about growing up with a mother who "loved me to pieces, as she often said, and I'm still trying to pick up the pieces."
At the time "Three Bricks" was published I was in my first year of what turned out to be a seven-year hitch as Sports Illustrated's freelance book reviewer. Three excerpts from the book had appeared in the magazine and Blount was on staff, but the editors still expected it to be reviewed, as indeed they expected all books by staffers to be reviewed. This usually wasn't a problem since most of the good sports writing in those days was done at SI -- though I once had the temerity to suggest in a review that a book of George Plimpton's that the magazine had excerpted was not without flaw, igniting a Vesuvian eruption from Plimpton the ashes from which are still fluttering to Earth -- and it certainly wasn't a problem with "Three Bricks," which I thought was terrific. I cited its "leisurely, good-humored pace" as well as its "exuberance and irreverence."
Rereading it now, for the first time in nearly 3 1/2 decades, I'd say all that and more. Not merely is "Three Bricks" funny, smart, perceptive and winning, there's also a lovely quality about it that, for all the ferocity of the gridiron and the profanity of some of its language, I'd call gentleness. It's a book about men in groups, this particular group being one that plays a very rough game, and it's actually far less about football than about people. "Whenever friends of mine would visit me in Pittsburgh," Blount writes, "some of them women for whom football had no charms, they would come away surprised at how easy and friendly the Steelers and their wives were. 'What nice people,' my friends would say."
At first Blount makes a joke of it: "Nice . I introduce you to gladiators and their women and you say they're nice people? You could have met nice people back home." Then he admits it: "But they were, nice people." When he'd first gone to Pittsburgh in the summer of 1973 -- the managing editor of SI "wanted somebody to live with a pro football team for a season and write a book about it" -- he wasn't sure what he was in for. He didn't relish the prospect of spending "a lot of time in a big-time dressing room," since such places "had always made me nervous," and "I had never liked being around a lot of people each of whom could so easily beat me half to death that there wouldn't be any point to it." It wasn't long before he realized he had entered "the brotherhood of people who make a living trying to crunch each other," and thought: "I want to infiltrate that . . . Without getting crunched."
How this came to pass ends up being as much a part of the narrative as the team, the city, the season. "At six feet tall and 200 pounds I felt diminished in the Steelers' company," Blount acknowledges, but gradually he becomes something close to a part of the team, dressing in the locker room, having post-practice drinks with the players, making what seem to have been genuine friendships with some of them. But:
". . . my solidarity with the Steelers is a one-shot thing. What am I doing dressing in their dressing room anyway? I don't hit anybody. I don't have a hip pointer or a muscle tear. I don't know whether I, whose knees don't hurt all the time, or whose leg isn't permanently numb from midcalf to midthigh (as Dwight White's is from a knee operation), can tell what kind of time people with such legs are having. This is a very carnal scene here in the dressing room, and I am mostly eyes and ears. I don't even have a pad and pencil."
The team to which Blount attached himself seemed on the verge of moving into the NFL's elite. After decades of mediocrity, the Steelers hired Chuck Noll as coach in 1969 and rapidly began making progress. In three years "inspired drafting and trades . . . brought together a young team with great potential, which became a Cinderella winner in '72." In 1973 "it had to be brought to maturity, as they say. The Revolution had come; now the new order had to be sustained." That isn't exactly what happened. The Steelers made it to the first round of the playoffs but were eliminated by their old nemeses, the Raiders. It wasn't until 1974 that they became the Steel Curtain, winners of four Super Bowls in six years, sending fully a dozen men to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, establishing themselves in the minds of many as the best team in the game's history.
All of which is interesting, and obviously gratifying to the Steelers and to Blount, but it really isn't the point of this book. Not much more than 20 or 30 of its pages are devoted to the actual games the Steelers played in 1973, and we get not much more than a flicker of play-by-play action. We get, instead, a whole lot of people, beginning with "the Chief," Art Rooney, the 72-year-old founder, "a man who, once he has become acquainted with you, looks almost comically glad to see you again," "perhaps the most fondly regarded figure in all of pro football," a man blessed with the gift of laughter and a gigantic heart.
Noll, the head coach, was considerably less lovable, but no less interesting and, for Blount, a considerably greater challenge. He "was tough." He "was almost always polite," and "even cordial, but if anybody strange peopled his dreams, or even his defensive backfield, he wasn't going to let on about it." His "approach to conditioning was that of a modern, rational, unhellish coach who uses the most scientific, rather than the most testing, methods available," and by and large he had the respect and loyalty of his players. He was cool (except when he lost his temper), distant, self-contained:
"Generally Noll's smile, however big it was, lacked something: release. It never suggested 'Whoops!' It was Noll's responsibility to keep the whoops element out of life. He had a sharp wit, in fact, but once he said, in response to a reporter's obtuse reaction to a postgame sardonicism, 'That's my trouble: I never could tell a joke.' Like most everything Noll said, that had an edge to it, and if the reporter had been more attentive he would have felt it. But that remark also had the ring of near-confessional, or concessional, truth. At any rate Noll never looked truly tickled. He did sometimes look [ticked] to the point of release. I have literally never seen a meaner thin-lipped, hot-eyed, near-to-seething look than Noll could throw at a reporter's effrontery or a player's lapse."
Not surprisingly, Blount's closest bonds were formed with the players, "a good, loose, homogeneous group . . . blacks, whites, stars and reserves, mixing relaxedly." Many of them were "erratic, wayward, moody, fun-loving spirits," and Blount was most powerfully drawn to those who were all or most of the above. The Steelers "prided themselves on being a nonracist organization and this pride was, at least relatively speaking, justifiable," i.e., within the limits of tolerance of America generally and sports specifically. There can't be any doubt that Blount liked them all, it certainly seems they liked him, and the reader feels that way about everybody. Nice people.
"About Three Bricks Shy of a Load" is out of print, but an expanded version, "About Three Bricks Shy . . . and the Load Filled Up," is available in a University of Pittsburgh Press paperback ($17.50).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.